Catherine Good, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY
Jessica Jensen, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Elementary Mathematics Education, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
Sanlyn Buxner, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor, Science Education, University of Arizona
Stamatis Vokos, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, and Director of STAR, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
Can programs focused on helping pre-service educators build a teacher-researcher dual identity change the notion that STEM ability is something that one is either born with or without? There is a growing number of teacher-researcher programs that provide authentic laboratory experiences to aspiring and practicing teachers. Such programs span the gamut of Undergraduate Research Experiences (UREs) to Teacher Research Experiences (TREs) and typically focus on bridging the gap between knowing science and doing science. These opportunities allow students and teachers to step away from stereotypes and answer questions such as “who does science?”, “what does science look like?”, and “who gets to participate?” from a well of personal experience. By building this understanding and dual identity, a primary goal of groups such as the STEM Teacher and Researcher (STAR) Program is for teachers to ultimately create authentic, scientific research experiences in their own classrooms.
STAR Program Overview
Since 2007, the STAR Program has demonstrated success in recruiting, preparing, and retaining a new generation of world-class STEM educators with transformed identities as teacher-researchers who lead inquiry-based lessons that are grounded in personal research-based experiences. The STAR Program plays an important role in the professionalization of STEM teacher preparation and retention through positive peer-to-peer collaboration with professional scientists, engineers, and organizations with vested interest in widespread STEM literacy, while simultaneously supporting industry-classroom collaborations and classroom innovation. While the development of knowledge and cognitive skills is important in teacher preparation, an explicit attention to psycho-social mindsets can contribute to the construction of a dual teacher-researcher identity. STAR not only focuses on building teacher-researcher identities but has also recently begun focusing efforts on addressing the importance of mindset and belonging in STEM fields.
From 2007 to 2020, the STAR Program has placed 551 prospective and early career STEM teachers, including 201 Noyce Scholars, in 744 nine-week summer research placements at more than two dozen national or university labs, or non-profit research institutions. During the summer program, STAR Fellows spend the majority of their time engaging in hands-on research projects, in which they write code, collect and analyze data, design and calibrate instruments, conduct and refine experiments, and communicate inferences, among other examples of complex research practices. This work is furthered by weekly participation in a 3-hour small-group workshop led by university faculty or master teachers, which aims to support the Fellows in their research experiences, develop a deeper understanding of STEM education pedagogy, and help make connections between their research experiences and their current or future classrooms.
Research experiences vary in structure and complexity, and many Fellows work in laboratories or fields with which they have minimal prior experience. As such, the learning curve can be steep, and Fellows experience first-hand exposure to the rigor and persistence that is required to engage in research at this level. Similarly, Fellows learn—maybe for the first time—that productive failure is an indispensable part of the scientific process. However, even though the STAR Program is designed to help STEM educators develop a dual-identity as teacher-researchers, these initial experiences can highlight the undermining role that “imposter syndrome” (Steele, 2011) plays for teachers, when those who have not previously identified as a scientists might fear that they will be seen as a “fraud” in the research environment. Furthermore, the culture of talent that pervades science fields (Leslie, et al., 2017) can also undermine teachers’ feelings of belonging to the science research community (Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2010). And as research in the social sciences has demonstrated, these mindsets—about talent and belonging—not only predict students’ motivation, learning, and achievement, but also can influence teachers’ own pedagogical practices (Good, et al., 2012; Rattan, Good, & Dweck, 2012). Thus, STAR moves beyond the traditional model of teacher-researcher programs to also include explicit components that bring to the fore, as a subject of study, teachers’ own underlying theories of science intelligence and their feelings of belonging to the community of science researchers.
Mindsets and Belonging
STEM ability is often viewed as something that one is either born with or without (Williams & King, 1980). And when students are oriented toward proving (rather than improving) their ability, their performance and motivation suffers, especially in the face of challenge (Dweck, 2000). For example, when students hold the belief that intelligence is a fixed trait (a fixed mindset) they become highly concerned about performances that reveal their “true” abilities (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Grant & Dweck, 2003; Mangels, Butterfield, Lamb, Good & Dweck, 2006), whereas students who hold the belief that intelligence is a malleable quality (a growth mindset) are less focused on measuring and proving their abilities, and more focused on learning, i.e., improving their abilities (Blackwell et al., 2007; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Mangels et al., 2006). Importantly, teachers’ own mindsets impact the culture of talent in a STEM classroom. Teacher mindsets affect their pedagogical practices (Anderman, et al., 2001) and classroom culture in a way that conveys their underlying mindsets and influences students’ motivation, interest, and investment in the class (Rattan, Good, & Dweck, 2012), as well as their grades (Canning, Muenks, Green, & Murphy, 2019). The culture of talent in STEM is so endemic (Lewin, 2008) that STEM advisory panels (e.g., the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, 2008) have identified changing this perspective as one of their recommendations for improving the STEM outcomes of American students.
STAR seeks to change the equation for STEM teachers and students. STAR Fellows and researchers work collaboratively to conduct science, thus giving these teacher-researchers an experience of doing science as scientists do. Part of STAR’s vision is to enable teachers to develop identities as scientists and to help disrupt the pervasive culture of talent in science through authentic scientific inquiry and study. We are encouraged by research in mathematics education, which has shown that when mathematics teachers experienced a similarly structured professional development, they were more likely to think of mathematics intelligence as a malleable quality, to report feeling like they belonged to the mathematics community, and to strengthen their identities as mathematicians (Milless, Godbole, Donaldson, & Good, 2020).
The Intervention – Fostering a Growth Mindset
In the last two years, STAR workshop leaders began infusing elements of growth mindset into their weekly workshops to help combat these issues and specifically, to help Fellows understand that productive struggle is part of the process of research and a catalyst for growth in understanding and ability. Additionally, Good, Rattan, and Dweck (2012) found that environments that foster a growth mindset support both a sense of belonging and retention, particularly for females who typically face stereotype threat in STEM fields. Therefore, by normalizing struggle as a part of the research process we hope to support Fellows’ sense of belonging in STEM fields, which could then aid in retaining STEM teacher-researchers.
To a certain extent, growth mindset was always part of the concurrent workshops, but in 2018 mindsets and belonging became a more prominent focus. In summers 2018 and 2019, each of the seven, 3-hour workshop sessions provided opportunities to develop an understanding of growth mindset and belonging, and to consider how these notions could be applied to the Fellows’ own classrooms. Growth mindset work was initiated by providing Fellows with a difficult math problem that set them up to struggle and gave them an opportunity to discuss the physiological response that the struggle created. This led to discussions of growth and fixed mindsets and the effects that these mindsets could have on learning. Fellows were also presented with data and information on neuroplasticity—which is the increased branching and connections between neurons in the brain-—a process that is enhanced when a person approaches learning with a growth mindset.
Although this work on growth mindset helps to build a sense of belonging, efforts to support belonging were also manifested through discussing research about and experiences that highlighted the importance of belonging. Fellows regularly discussed their struggles in laboratory experiences, which helped to normalize this struggle and reduce imposter syndrome. This sense of belonging was further heightened through attempts to build community by means of shared experiences such as group meals and outings.
With the additional explicit focus on growth mindset and belonging, we proposed that STAR Fellows would be more likely to (a) adopt the view that STEM intelligence is a malleable quality that can be increased with effort and engagement, (b) strengthen their feelings of belonging to the STEM community, and (c) incorporate “scientist” into their identity. In other words, STAR could not only enhance teachers’ scientific knowledge, but also shift teachers’ mindsets about intelligence, belonging, and identity to more closely align with the psychosocial mindsets that research has shown to be beneficial for student’s motivation, learning, and achievement (Good, Rattan, & Dweck, 2012; Walton & Cohen, 2007). These productive mindsets may be particularly important to foster in teachers working in districts that serve large numbers of minoritized students; research has demonstrated the importance of teachers’ mindsets in mitigating students’ vulnerability to stereotype threat (Good, Mangels, & Evelo, 2015).
Furthermore, because teachers’ mindsets about the nature of intelligence—as either a fixed trait or a malleable quality—are known to significantly affect their pedagogical practices, again with ramifications for student learning (Anderman, et al., 2001; Rattan, et al., 2012), we predicted that STEM teachers’ own changing views of what is required to succeed in STEM would facilitate their willingness to challenge their students and encourage them in productive struggle. Thus, we predicted that STAR Fellows would report stronger growth mindsets, identities connecting to STEM, and a sense of belonging to STEM, and that those productive mindsets would in turn lead to increased endorsement of high-quality instructional practices that support student learning, and ultimately increased student achievement.
To test these hypotheses, we are conducting a longitudinal study investigating the relationship between participation in STAR, psychosocial mindsets (growth mindset, belonging, and identity), and endorsement of the types of pedagogical practices shown to support student learning.
STAR Fellows have completed a battery of instruments designed to measure their a) mindsets of the nature of STEM intelligence as either a fixed trait or a malleable quality (“You can learn new things in STEM, but your basic STEM intelligence stays the same,” Good, et al., 2012), b) feelings of belonging to the science community (“I feel like a member of the STEM community,” Good et al., 2012), c) their identity as scientists (“Being a scientist is an important part of my self-image,” Good, et al., 2020), and d) their endorsement of pedagogical practices that encourage productive persistence (“Tell students that you know they can improve if they work hard in STEM,” Rattan, et al., 2012). The first three surveys were administered at three time points: (1) prior to participation in the STAR summer workshops and internships, (2) immediately after the summer experience, and (3) approximately six months after the intervention.
Preliminary results indicate that participation in STAR led to a significant increase in growth mindset from time 1 to time 2 (p = .034). Importantly, we not only found a significant increase in growth mindset from time 1 to time 3 (p = .01) but also found no significant decreases in growth mindset from time 2 to time 3 (p > .05). These results suggest that STAR is an effective and enduring intervention to foster growth mindsets in STEM teachers even when not actively being engaged in ongoing professional development around growth mindset.
In addition, we found a significant increase in STAR Fellows’ feelings of belonging to the STEM community. Specifically, STAR Fellows reported a significantly greater feeling of being a valued member of the STEM community from time 1 to time 2 (p = .02). Interestingly, the gains in belonging decreased at time 3, suggesting a need for ongoing support of our Fellows after leaving the research labs.
We are in the process of analyzing the relationship between STAR participation, psycho-social mindsets, and endorsement of productive pedagogical practices. In addition to the mindset and belonging measures STAR Fellows completed, they also responded to a series of hypothetical situations designed to assess potential variations in the pedagogical practices they would endorse for a range of student profiles. These hypothetical situations presented the case of a student who had struggled and put in little effort, struggled and put in significant effort, or was successful with significant effort. Fellows were then asked to indicate the likelihood that they would implement various approaches for that student. Past research has shown that a teacher’s underlying theory of intelligence predicts the type of pedagogical practices endorsed (Rattan, et al., 2012). Compared to those with a fixed mindset, those with a growth mindset were more likely to endorse practices that emphasized effort and engagement as a reason for the students’ level of success, encouraged productive approaches to studying (such as working with a tutor), and maintained opportunities to work on high quality, challenging problems. We predicted a similar pattern and are analyzing the data to determine if participation in STAR not only leads to increased growth mindset and belonging, but also endorsement of these types of pedagogical practices.
The following implications address next steps and considerations for researchers and program designers:
- Integrating growth mindsets into professional development – This study showed evidence that providing workshops that specifically focus on growth mindset leads to sustained increases in the belief that effort, rather than talent, leads to success. Programs designed to engage participants in experiences that are in fields that typically perpetuate a culture of talent (e.g. STEM fields) should consider implementing regular workshops that focus on the concept of growth mindset and supporting research on neuroplasticity. Developing an understanding of these ideas can help focus participant efforts on learning and development in a sustained way and decrease opportunities for imposter syndrome to set in.
- Fostering belonging – Belonging is essential for retention of teachers. While specific efforts to create a sense of belonging in workshops and research experiences increased Fellows’ feelings of belonging, this was not a lasting effect after the summer experience. Therefore, program designers must create sustained efforts and opportunities for teacher-researchers to build a sense of belonging for themselves within STEM research and teaching experiences.
- Researching the links to pedagogical practices – While growth mindsets and belonging both showed significant increases in this study, there is still a need to study how these experiences affect the pedagogical practices and decisions that teacher-researchers implement in their classrooms. Research should focus on whether an increase in growth mindset in teacher-researchers predicts an increase in pedagogical practices that foster growth mindsets within students.
The results from our careful study of the STAR program provide evidence that STAR can help teachers grow their ideas about the malleability of science intelligence and what it means to belong to the community of science researchers. These results also shed light on the mechanism behind the success of STAR Fellows and highlight the importance of explicitly addressing psycho-social mindsets in teacher-researcher programs more generally. Doing so has the potential to more fully support teachers’ adoption of a dual teacher-researcher identity, and their creation of authentic, scientific research experiences in their own classrooms.
We gratefully acknowledge STAR’s long-standing public and private partners, most notably the National Science Foundation (most recently through grants DUE-1660839 and 1836335); the California State University Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative; Cal Poly’s College of Science and Mathematics; the Cal Poly Center for Engineering, Mathematics, and Science Education; the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust; Chevron Corp; as well as our talented STAR Workshop leaders and our indispensable lab coordinators. Finally, without the intellectual contributions of Kaylene Wakeman and John Keller, STAR would simply not be possible.